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Star Wars: A Spotter’s Guide to the Legends EU

Star Wars!

A thing we all love and can totally agree on amicably!

While we anxiously await the day that there can be Star Peace, this sprawling franchise has encompassed numerous genres beyond the realms and narratives of space opera. The franchise’s genre-hopping has also spanned over multiple “time periods” throughout the storied history of the Jedi, Skywalkers, and Republic. Branching off into multiple timelines that wove themselves throughout and between the movies into books, video games, and short-form narratives.

The most famous of these timelines being the “Legends Expanded Universe”. The name given to the now-defunct chunk of history that started narratively post-Return of the Jedi which used to sustain us ravenous nerds once we had ruined our VHS tapes of the Special Editions, roving out in search of more love and lightsabers.

So in honor of the GateCrashers Star Wars Celebration (no, not that one), the wise and powerful Jedi Council of GC decided we should talk about our favorite Old EU works! The stories that were too big for movies. Too weird for TV shows. And too horny to be placed anywhere else in the main canon. 

So gather up that Calamari Flan and take a seat at the cantina as we bring you A Spotter’s Guide to the Legends EU!

Star Wars: X-Wing (Book Series)

So we are gonna start with one of the more obvious picks, but one that merits discussion all the same. Michael A. Stackpole’s intensely readable X-Wing series! For my money, one of the few aspects of the Legends EU canon that still holds the fuck up.

Set only two and a half years after the Battle of Endor and the destruction of the second Death Star, the X-Wing series finds Rebellion hero pilot turned New Republic General, Wedge Antillies, building a brand new Rogue Squadron; the legendary fighter wing that took down the first Death Star and provided the fledgling Rebellion with some of its first victories.

But while the logline of the series portends high adventure and blazing set pieces, the X-Wing series delivers much more than just thrills and heroics. While centered around Wedge as the “lead”, the rest of the cast, all ace pilots from across the franchise, all get plenty of time in the spotlight, growing together as a team and experiencing the epic highs and lows of a life on the edge. More than that, Stackpole takes these missions and their stakes deadly seriously, allowing this series to finally function as a raw and real war story, set against the immense backdrop of Star Wars in general.

That means we experience loss almost as much as Rogue Squadron does. We feel their pain and their triumph in a way that the movies never really had the time to focus on. We get smaller stories and scenes of heartbreak even as the larger war against the remains of the Empire marches on. That, I feel, is the real triumph of the X-Wing series. A Series that finally put the “War” into Star Wars.

Genndy Taratakovsky’s Clone Wars (Animated Specials)

This one might be another “no brainer” so bear with me. BUT C’MON! It’s the “original” Clone Wars cartoon! And the superior one, if we are being truly honest with ourselves and The Force. (Editor’s Note: This claim is disputed).

Originally presented as much-hyped short film specials on Cartoon Network/Toonami, these high octane, smartly contained short films gave fans left feeling tepid after The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones the action they so craved. Almost oppressively animated and smartly staged by the fevered mind that gave us Dexter’s Laboratory and Korgoth of Barbaria the shorts became appointment viewing during their original run and garnered all manner of critical praise for their rough and tumble action movie approach to Star Wars.

Sure, the final movie they heralded turned out to be kind of a snooze (though I’ll admit Revenge of the Sith is my favorite Prequel DO NOT @ ME). But the anime-inspired shorts still hold the hell up. Beyond just the sheer kinetic fun of the series throughout, you can tell the production staff had a real blast filtering Star Wars through all sorts of action/samurai movie riffs. Not to mention it serves as the stage to introduce many fan-favorite characters to the animated world, such as Asajj Ventress, the dreaded Durge, Kit Fisto, and literally dozens more. They even have been given somewhat of a renaissance here lately thanks to Disney+’s latest addition of the series to their “Star Wars Vintage ” collection.

Though pretty much all of the series’ stories have been wiped away by the new Clone Wars cartoons, I am still happy to live in a universe where I can queue up a whole bloody cartoon of seeing some of my favorite Jedi and Clone Troopers fighting breathlessly through the galaxy, not a single episode of a droid being kidnapped in sight.

The Star Wars: Jedi Knight Series (Video Games)

Probably the entries on this list I feel the most connected to, LucasArts’ Jedi Knight games deliver pretty much exactly what is said on the tin. And therein lies the real fun!

Set roughly between the years directly after Return of the Jedi into the opening years of Luke’s New Jedi Order (more on THEM in a bit), players usually find themselves playing as Kyle Katarn. The Legends canon’s acerbic mixture of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo. A character that I lovingly refer to as a “Trash Jedi”, as he starts as a cocksure padawan, washes out, takes up bounty hunting, and then finally comes back around to being a Jedi, all over the course of the first two games, both thrilling examples of the kind of cinematic shooter early 90s PC games were capable of.

Katarn is a character that recurs a few times throughout the Legends canon and once stood as the closest the series ever got to a Grey Jedi. He is also going to recur a few times in THIS list too, if only to keep me from mentioning Dash Rendar, who is just a straight-up carbon copy of Han with great shoulder pads. I have to give General Calrissian 5 wupiupi every time I mention Dash Rendar so I try to steer clear. 

But probably the best entry in the franchise, along with the most accessible, is Jedi Knight III: Jedi Academy, which finds players taking on the role of a full-fledged EU canon Jedi apprentice, under the tutelage of Kyle and Luke. Players get to visit a number of iconic worlds and choose the path of the New Order or the Cult of Ragnos, a new Sith sect rising to meet the light of Skywalker’s new temple. It is genuinely fun Star Wars nonsense and is stapled to a game that’s surprisingly addicting to play. The lightsaber mechanics feel genuinely devastating when employed correctly and the character development, tied obviously to your moral choices, feels rewarding in a way a lot of modern SW games have yet to crack again.

If you have a Steam account and some time to kill, spin them up! I promise you’ll at least be entertained by the dozens of Stormtroopers you’ll Force fling to their ragdolled, Unreal Engine-powered doom. 

The Bounty Hunter Wars (Book Series)

Long before another War of the Bounty Hunters graced the pages of Marvel Comics, author K.W. Jeter stirred up a whole ‘nother hive of scum and villainy in the Bounty Hunter Wars trilogy.

Set almost directly after Return of the Jedi, this trilogy’s biggest selling point was its promise to return Boba Fett to the saga. In the trilogy’s opening installment, The Mandalorian Armor, Jeter did just that. Just…probably not in the way we were expecting. From that kick-off, we are treated to a rollicking journey through Star Wars’ backwaters and scuzzier locales. One that feels and reads with a much harder edge than the lofty Jedi-focused stories and “blockbuster” efforts like the Thrawn Trilogy.

Better still, Jeter makes great use of the whole toybox of villains provided by Star Wars. Fett, obviously, takes the “marquee” spot but characters like Dengar, Bossk, Zuckuss, and 4-LOM all get rousing set pieces and featured positions throughout the three books, making great use of the book’s focus away from the “Big Three” of Luke, Han, and Leia. Cult-favorite character Prince Xizor, star of the N64’s launch hit Shadows of the Empire, also gets fun featured bits throughout, adding a bit of interconnected flair to the whole affair and adding the Black Sun’s rep to the already ripping yarn.

While relatively low-stakes in relation to the more well-known Legends canon installments, The Bounty Hunter Wars provided the prose with a scummy, pulp novel-esque fun the new books could stand to find a bit more of.

Star Wars: Galaxy of Fear (YA Book Series)

Did y’all know that Star Wars once did a Goosebumps? Did you also know that they fucking rule? Because both of these things are true, I promise.

Set in the weeks after A New Hope, the Galaxy of Fear series, all penned with a ghoulish glee by author John Whitman, follow Force-sensitive twins Tash and Zak Arranda who take up with their mysterious “Uncle” Hoole and his ditzy droid DV-9 after the destruction of their homeworld Alderaan. The pair then ping from one horrifying adventure to the next, trying to stay one step ahead of the Empire and meeting all manner of iconic Star Wars heroes along the way.

And when I say “horrifying” I absolutely mean it. These books are filled to the brim with nightmare fuel like flesh-eating Dark Force-powered zombies of long-dead Jedi and a whole race of aliens that are just brains in jars that walk on mechanized spider legs. THESE WERE FOR CHILDREN. 

While the clear R.L. Stein inspiration is an obvious draw, this series also stands up as a competently structured YA saga. All the books are accessible enough on their own, but they reward repeat readers with touchstones to the past books and are armed with a truly driving, morally poignant central narrative that carries it across the whole way. 

The cameos don’t hurt either. I won’t lie at the surface level glee at reading about Dr. Evazan being a part of basically the Imperial Thule Society or Dash Rendar (dank FARRIK, another 5 wupiupi for Lando…) ferrying children through a casino ship overtaken by a homicidal AI. But I think Galaxy of Fear offers a lot more than just basic thrills and chills, especially if you like your Star Wars to be a little more genre flavored. And A LOT more koo-koo bananas

Star Wars: Republic Commando (Video Game)

For my galactic credits, one of the best FPS shooters ever made and a personal (not-at-all-pushy) request for the list from Editor Ethan here at the GC Capital Ship. (Editor’s Note: Go read the book series that followed on from the game, they’ll make you cry).

Casting players in the role of “Boss”, the CO of an elite unit of Clone Troopers, LucasArts’ Republic Commando depicts the absolute thick of the Clone Wars’ fighting. Employing the diverse destructive talents of the rest of your squad, the game brings the pitched, gritty fighting of some of the better EU novels and translates it thrillingly onto consoles. 

Sure the campaign is thin compared to today’s standards and the multiplayer lobbies stand empty now (AGENTofASGARD on Xbox Live btw, in case you all wanna take some checkpoints later). But there is a reason it drew comparisons to Halo and the Spec-Ops franchise in reviews upon its release. Its combat mechanics are easy to learn, but challenging to master, and its storytelling, while driving and action-heavy, still makes the time for quiet moments amongst the player and the rest of the cast. All culminating in another stand-out first-person shooter effort amid the Legends EU video game timeline. 

Dark Horse Comics’ Star Wars Titles (Comics)

Long before the Galaxy Far, Far Away returned to the House of Ideas and once again bore the Marvel masthead, Dark Horse Comics controlled almost every era of Star Wars. And did a pretty bang-up job with it to boot.

Encompassing everything from the Old Republic to the New Jedi Order, the Dark Horse Comics era of Star Wars was an embarrassment of riches. Starting in the 1990s and even supported along the way by host of The George Lucas Talk Show, George Lucas, the Dark Horse line continually offered up a wide range of Star Wars experiences. Right up until the moment it legally couldn’t anymore.

For fans that wanted stories of the heyday of the Jedi, there were titles like Dawn of the Jedi, Republic, and even a Knights of the Old Republic ongoing series. For readers that wanted stories of the Age of Rebellion and iconic Star Wars heroes, there was a Star Wars ongoing, Rebellion, and even a wonderful X-Wing: Rogue Squadron title, serving as both an adaptation and continuation of the fan-favorite prose series. And even for fans that wanted to move BEYOND all that, they offered many adaptations of famous Legends EU novels, the now-iconic Dark Empire miniseries, and its rousing follow-ups Crimson Empire I-III.

We honestly didn’t know how good we had it. Though the current “Marvel Era” of Star Wars comics have popped in a way I didn’t expect (I would die for Doctor Aphra), I will always remember fondly the time when Dark Horse Comics’ efforts graced my pull-box with just top to bottom FUN (and well-produced) Star Wars comics.

The Jedi Academy Trilogy / I, Jedi / The New Jedi Order (Books)

My final entry is a bit of a cheat, but stick with me, I promise my reasoning is sound. 

One of the most enduring concepts from the Legends EU canon is the New Jedi Order. A brand new generation of Jedi Knights, led by Jedi Master Luke Skywalker, who intends on restoring the Jedi into something new and helpful to the fledgling New Republic. This kicks off properly in 1994’s Jedi Search by Kevin J. Anderson, a frequent and ironclad name on any discount Sci-Fi fiction table. 

This trilogy opener really swings for the fences. It’s weird and fussy and very, very focused on establishing the flavor of Luke’s new class of Jedi. But best of all, it feels like it’s also very intent on pushing forward Star Wars canon thus far. Shaped by the success of the Thrawn trilogy and some of the other standalone books, Anderson and company start to really knuckle down and grow the universe out, dragging a lot of icons along the way. And even introducing a few of his own with the debut of the Solo Twins, Jacen and Jaina

This expansion also starts to bleed well into the standalone books too! One of Anderson’s later efforts, I, Jedi, for example. In this single volumed tale that takes place concurrently with the new trilogy, we are introduced to Corran Horn. He’s a former member of Rogue Squadron and one of the galaxy’s first new Force-sensitives. In the chaos of the ending war, Horn’s wife is kidnapped and visions of her haunt his life. Turns out, those visions are Force powered and Horn resolves himself to speed through Jedi training with Luke in order to save her. Even if he has to turn to the Dark Side to do it.

Mixing the military action of the X-Wing series and the high weirdness of the Jedi Academy Trilogy, I, Jedi finds the Legends EU bearing expansion very well while also making great use of the myriad of genres one can explore through the lens of Star Wars. It’s exciting and raw and immensely re-readable, even after all these years.

This expansion comes to a head 25 years ABY (After the Battle of Yavin) in the proper debut of the New Jedi Order. 1999’s Vector Prime from the legendary R.A. Salvatore, the man who gave us Drizzit Do’Urden. Picking up with Jania, Mara Jade Skywalker, and other Legends EU staples, this series that sustained the Legends EU until the very day it stopped is just pure fun from start to finish.

The new generation of Jedi are thriving and the galaxy is in a healthy flux. But when a new and wholly unconventional threat called the Yuuzhan Vong make themselves known coupled with reports of rogue Jedi taking the law into their own hands on the Outer Rim, our new Jedi Council is forced into a deadly game they may not even know the rules to.

It all culminates in a thrilling, but meticulously staged collection of Star Wars stories. Ones that both honor the spirit of the original movies and push the franchise into different, challenging, and unexpected places.

Conclusion

Hear some of you grousing already, I can.

“What about the Black Fleet Crisis?!” “No love for Thrawn?!” “Y NO SPLINTER OF THE MIND’S EYE!?”

To which I reply, that’s the beauty of the Legends EU! It contained so much and employed all manner of genre riffs that any one of you could make a wholly different list and it wouldn’t necessarily be “wrong”!

The Legends Expanded Universe canon may have been pruned, TVA style, once the new movie trilogy was announced. But that doesn’t lessen its power much. Nor does it detract from the new line of novels and tie-ins produced in the wake of these new movies.

It’s all still there, in libraries and bookstores used and new all over the world, should anybody want it. I think that’s pretty crikkin’ neat. It doesn’t make it any “better” than the new books, comics, and video games. It just makes it always THERE for us. Either in their original prints or in the new reprints popping up on shelves, provided by the good folks at Del Ray.

Just like how A Galaxy Far, Far Away always is. No matter the incarnation. That matters. Then, now, and forever.

Godspeed, Rebels.

Categories
Video Games

No Man’s Sky (Review)

Ever since Mary Shelley wrote ‘‘Frankenstein; or, the modern Prometheus‘‘ in 1818, and redefined forever what would be the science fiction genre, especially in storytelling, there has been an insurmountable amount of work made around it. There have been books, comics, music, and movies that try to capture that style and narrative to tell a new story, maybe attempting (And maybe even succeeding) at trying to redefine it how Shelley once did, or use it to talk about modern issues. 

But what is science fiction? What makes a piece of art belong to that specific genre, and not fantasy, or surrealism, for example? As understood after Frankenstein, is a type of story set in an alternative reality to ours, to explore and answer a philosophical question that cannot be answered in our current reality. That’s why a book like ‘’1984’’ is still science fiction even after decades of its (at the time of it being written) futuristic setting has passed. And same as that of Shelley, a lot of works like Blade Runner choose to explore the theme of existentialism under different lenses and objectives. 

How did we originate, and how do we matter in an infinitely vast and ever-expanding universe in which we are no more than invisible dots? In movies or graphic novels, you can even see how the unimaginable size of the universe is purposefully the center of attention in a lot of panels to emphasize that exact theme. Since we are commonly scared of the randomness of our existence, given the unknown possibilities that come with that, choosing to create something using existentialist themes usually comes with a depressing tone, and that’s what sets No Man’s Sky apart.

Source: No Man’s Sky

I’m not a day one player. In fact, I played for the first time in 2019, already three years after its launch, and after HelloGames had added various patches and updates. Even though the game gives almost total freedom to do anything you want, the start is almost the same for everyone. Every player starts at a random star, with nearly all of them being dangerous for some reason. You may start at a frozen, heat, or radioactive planet. I’ve heard of very few people that begin on a paradise planet. 

In my case, I appeared on a temperature planet, which means daily heat storms and generally a desert biome. So you wake up completely lost and disoriented, without knowing where you are, how did you get there, or even who you are. At this point, you are nobody; a newborn, if you want to put it that way. You want to find answers, and notice that the equipment of your exosuit, the spacesuit that keeps you alive in outer space and gives you tools for better survival, is broken. So you start searching for the necessary materials to repair it. You walk this barren planet that seems focused on getting rid of you, experiencing storms that kill you in a matter of minutes, while there’s not a single sign of life forms like you that can help you, or even fight against you, in order to at least make the place feel less isolated. But you also realize that you can do anything you want with what is presented; you can go to whatever you prefer on this planet, transform the land at your will, and the more you find, the more options you have. It’s a similar feeling to that of playing Minecraft for the first time.

So you find the materials and repair the most important piece of technology for this; your analysis visor. When it’s turned on, you get a signal, coming from a starship. And then you go, fighting the deathly weather by trying to go as fast as possible or maybe using caves as a refuge, whatever way you can. And when you reach the ship, you discover it needs fuel and the thrusters repaired. After you’re done with the heavy work, you can finally take off from this planet. The motors of the starship start running, and it jumps brusquely out of the ground, almost as a magnet liberating itself from the force of another magnetic body. And when you start flying, this gigantic planet, that seemed infinite when you were exploring it, becomes almost as small as you. 

And the next task is reaching a space station. Until that point, I thought I was gonna be alone all of the time. There were only going to be empty planets, some nicer and more visually pleasing than others, but empty planets after all, where I could only explore, discover animals and build things. But all that changed when I reached the station. I encountered myself at the front door of this massive, spherical, otherworldly satellite, and I was absorbed inside. As my spaceship was going through the interior of this unknown building, I was in awe. It wasn’t something I could build at all, it had to be the work of something far more organized and capable than a single, wandering being like myself; what was that entity in question, I don’t know. But even more striking, were the people that I saw. Aliens of all kinds of races going through what seemed like just a normal day; some worked there, some were just stopping by, like me. This is when I knew that the planet I woke up in, was nothing. I wasn’t alone, I was in an extremely alive and breathing universe with millions of things that were just waiting for me to find them. 

Source: No Man’s Sky

And I kept playing. As the months passed, I dropped out of the game to do other things or play other games, but I always came back. There was always something else to discover, especially with all the new updates that are constantly being added to the game. I’ve always looked for that game that people tend to have for themselves, that serves almost like a second world to live in. For some, that’s a game like World of Warcraft, for others something more relaxing like Stardew Valley; for me, it’s No Man’s Sky. 

At first, I settled on a nice planet that I found, built my base that I planned to keep expanding until it was the most imposing, technologically advanced mansion, with every possible gadget that I could make. But I had a really evident money problem. There are three types of money in the game; units, nanites, and quicksilver. All of them are accessible without paying anything in real life, but I had near to nothing of all three. And that’s really important, if you lack a mineral to create something, you could just buy it at a space station. Or maybe you are offered a freighter that costs ten million units, and you have barely six thousand. I wasn’t very aware of the best way to get money. I saw that some people built their own industries that mined minerals to then sell them, and I considered doing that, but it just didn’t feel right for me. 

That’s when I started doing the Nexus missions. The Nexus is basically a lobby where you can trade, meet other players, claim rewards and take on missions. The mission objectives can go from rescuing a stranded life-form, or fighting space pirates in your ship, to destroying sentinel bases. I started earning a fair amount of money with them, and while I was exploring, I realized that I didn’t want to settle on a planet. I was going to travel through the universe, living inside my freighter, a mothership given to me by an ex-captain after saving them from pirates, because they weren’t prepared for the responsibilities. Not only that, but I was going to save the money I’m getting as a bounty hunter to upgrade both my freighter and starship to become a space pirate myself, living my life by robbing other freighters. 

And while I’m doing that, I’m still finding out things. I recently broke an egg that I thought would just give me minerals, and a mix of a pseudo-xenomorph and a scorpion came out of it and attacked me. I also discovered a giant, one-eyed worm at the bottom of the sea that almost ate me. And probably the most random encounter I had, was a metallic substance in an ancient underwater building that talked to me about some sort of prophecy. And there are still things that I know about that I never encountered, like giant-sand worms (I tend to avoid deserted planets), flying pets, and abandoned, almost haunted freighters in the middle of space. All of it serves as proof of how No Man’s Sky treats existentialism. Some people decide to view it as a hopeless concept; we are not important, we are just dust in space and nothing we’ll do will ever matter. But No Man’s Sky wants you to embrace the fact that you are an invisible dot in an ever-growing universe, so that you can do everything you want with it, and have as much fun as you want because, in the end, that’s all that matters.

Categories
Video Games

Dragon Age’s Recovering Templar

NPC’s, or non-playable characters, are typically the filler of the RPG sausage. You need them to build out the world and provide stakes to the narrative, but more often than not they won’t bring much outside of side-quests to the table. Cullen Rutherford is not a traditional NPC. I had at one point written off this Templar until I noticed he kept showing up in Dragon Age games, each time being a little more relevant to the plot and underscoring the plights of the Templar Order, most notably substance abuse. 

Dragon Age is a fantasy RPG centred on the continent of Thedas’s hostile politics, a recurrent demonic plague known as “The Blight,” and — most notably — the conflict between the mages and their keepers, the Templar Order. 

When we are first introduced to Cullen, he’s a Templar witness to the Harrowing your protagonist survives in Dragon Age: Origins‘s magi origin. His job was to strike you down if you came out of that “test” as an abomination. When you later visit the Circle of Magi’s tower, Cullen can be found trapped by some blood mages and politely asks you to kill all the mages within — in case any were secretly blood mages. I didn’t expect him to show up again in any future capacity.

Cullen in captivity – Dragon Age: Origins

Cullen was next sent to the Circle of Magi in Kirkwall, the setting of Dragon Age II, wherein he was promoted to second-in-command to Knight-Commander Meredith. Unlike his portrayal in the first game, Cullen is idealistic about the Templar Order’s ability to win the hearts and minds of the city and quell rising tensions between the discontent mages and the Chantry. As the years pass, he comes to believe that Meredith is leading his order down the wrong path. The red lyrium in her sword has shaped her into a homicidal authoritarian. When she dissolves the Circle of Magi in Kirkwall (effectively sentencing all mages to death) it is Cullen who orders her to step down. 

The last person I expected to see commanding the Inquisitor’s forces in Dragon Age: Inquisition was Cullen. The Templars were in active conflict with the mages and he did not seem like the type to walk the middle road. It’s clear, however, the events in Kirkwall changed the way he saw both the order and its treatment of the mages. His degree of inner turmoil isn’t fully apparent until he admits to you that he’s been weaning himself off an addiction to lyrium. In fact, Cullen made an agreement with your squad-mate Cassandra to be removed from duty should he become a liability. As the Inquisitor, you have the option to either encourage him to fight this addiction or go back on lyrium. 

Cullen’s Lyrium Kit – Dragon Age: Inquisition

So, there’s a lot to unpack here. Who are the Templars and why are they abusing harmful substances? Why would substance use be a part of the Templar Order’s culture? Why is it that the Inquisitor has any say over Cullen’s path to recovery? 

The Templars are the military arm of the Chantry, the most prominent religious order in Thedas. They are charged with hunting apostate and rogue mages, defeating demons, and watching over the mages researching magic within the Circle of Magi. The Templars posture as holy knights, yet their Order has insidious practices towards both mages and its own members which all come back to the use of lyrium. 

While mages use lyrium to enhance spells and rituals, Templars ingest this mineral to enhance their ability to resist and dispel magic. It also gives them more boldness and power in combat. Not dissimilar in some ways to the performance enhancing chemicals used on soldiers in Vietnam. In many ways, it’s horrific that substance use like this be so ingrained in Templar life, but this is not a side-effect of their calling — it is a feature.  

It becomes clear throughout the Dragon Age games that the Chantry has dominance over the entire lyrium trade, despite dwarves being the only group capable of safely mining and refining the substance. The Chantry uses their lyrium for a test called the Harrowing for all Circle of Magi members, to disable mages by removing their magical connection to the Fade using a lyrium branding technique known internally as the Rite of Tranquility, and — finally — to maintain Templar addiction to the substance for long term obedience. 

Cullen’s Lyrium capsule – Dragon Age: Inquisition

On the surface it makes a twisted kind of sense — use the substance directly connected to all magic in Thedas to police its usage. Templars, with their lyrium enhanced abilities, can fight back against rogue mages, apostates, and abominations by becoming inhuman themselves. If you dig a little deeper though the Chantry’s logic falls apart. 

A mage can survive a Harrowing and later become a blood mage or abomination. That first test is like getting your driver’s license — a successful exam doesn’t eliminate the possibility of an eventual car crash. Secondly, forcefully turning mages into Tranquil through lyrium castration may relieve the risk of their demonic possession but it also removes all humanity and has been repeatedly abused by the Chantry for political purposes. The greatest lyrium abuse, however, lies with the rank and file Templars. 

Prolonged use of lyrium by Templars becomes addictive, the cravings unbearable. Over time they will grow disoriented, incapable of distinguishing a memory from the present. They’ll often become paranoid, haunted by their worst memories and nightmares during all hours. So, why not just quit it entirely? Well, withdrawal symptoms include physical weakness, headaches, forgetfulness, an unquenchable thirst, and cold hands. A Templar named Samson talks up the merits of lyrium in Dragon Age II before admitting, “if you stop it just about kills you.” Yet this doesn’t dissuade Cullen from attempting sobriety. 

Cullen & Tranquil Mage branded by the Right of Tranquility – Dragon Age: Inquisition

I have complicated feelings around how Dragon Age handles lyrium addiction. Being only a few months sober myself, I can understand the shame Cullen feels in relapsing on lyrium. It struck a chord with me. So, naturally, I pushed him away from lyrium use. The problem, outside of the withdrawal effects, is that his outcome as an addict or teetotaler depends wholly on your choices as the Inquisitor. Specifically, whether you’ve pushed him to use lyrium or abstain, whether you’ve disbanded the Inquisition, and whether the two of you have been romantically involved. 

The potential scenarios that play out are (1) Cullen settles down with you in Ferelden to find some undefined happiness with no clear indication of how he overcame addiction, (2) Cullen opens a rehabilitation centre for former Templars and people suffering from lyrium madness, and (3) Cullen is found years later as a crazed street beggar who has fully succumbed to lyrium madness and needs to be put down like a rabid dog. 

Cullen’s lyrium addict outcome – Dragon Age: Inquisition – Trespasser DLC

Lyrium isn’t methamphetamine. It doesn’t function at all like opioids, depressants, or hallucinogens. If anything, the use of lyrium by Templars would be more analogous to the stimulants I take to manage the physical and mental symptoms of ADHD. I’m not even sure if my advising him to go off lyrium entirely was the right choice given the immediate effects on his coordination and awareness along with the long-term effects. Sadly, any other choice the Inquisitor makes is a fast-track to Cullen becoming a drug-addled beggar. Why is the choice so black-and-white? And why is me being his romantic partner the difference between him farming in the countryside or opening up the Betty Ford Clinic for wayward Templars? 

Ideally, the conversations you have with Cullen would have amounted to him making his own choice about substance usage and recovery. Or perhaps, maybe the triggering of a questline that produces some solutions around lyrium addiction and recovery. Instead, the Templar Order marches onward as does lyrium addiction. Cullen was just a glance at how challenging the world of Thedas is for those who sacrifice their physical wellbeing for shiny armor and a stat boost against magic. It’s a sad conclusion to a character who deserved to determine his own fate. 

I recognize that Cullen is an NPC and you are the protagonist. Your agency in the world of Dragon Age is obvious. Still, the level of influence you have over another character’s recovery in this case is a real disappointment. My hope is that the upcoming Dragon Age sequel can find a solution to rehabilitate former Templars without removing their agency or waving away how immensely challenging the road to recovery can be.